In August 2014, a man who just over ten years previous had been unknown within the wine world was sentenced to ten years in prison. He had conned almost everyone in the industry out of millions of dollars by trading in fake bottles.
Jakarta-born Rudy Kurniawan, currently serving a ten-year prison sentence in California, is now the subject of a new documentary, Sour Grapes. The film uses archive footage of Kurniawan, along with interviews with wine producers, his fraud victims, and the detectives who uncovered his web of lies. It reveals how an outsider managed to fool collectors into paying millions of dollars for phoney bottles of rare wine.
We spoke to British filmmaker Jerry Rothwell, co-director of Sour Grapes, about Kurniawan and why his story stands out among the other wine fraudsters.
MUNCHIES: Hi Jerry, how did you first hear about Rudy's story? Jerry Rothwell: I first came across the story through our French co-producer, who is based in Dijon in France, which is just on the edge of the wine-producing Burgundy area. They'd heard about the story, principally because of prominent winemaker Laurent Ponsot's initial intervention in Rudy's scam. It was also just after Rudy's arrest in 2012. I started filming with them and then they went to Rudy's trial where I met Rueben Atlas, the co-director, and we decided to make the film together.
Who did you want to film to appeal to? People in the wine industry or a wider audience? I wanted it to be a film that opened the story up to a general audience. I'm not someone who's particularly into fine wine. I enjoy drinking wine but have probably never spent more than £20 on a bottle. Even then, that would only be a couple of times in my life! I was a total novice into that area and in some ways that's a strength because you have to work out what it is about that story that people love so much.
Filming in Burgundy and in Ponsot's vineyards helped explain the magic of wine production. It's rooted in centuries of culture and these vines go deep down into the soil. I like the contrast of that and what happens to wine when it becomes a commodity, especially older wines that were selling at hugely inflated prices during the finance boom. It felt to me like it was not just about wine, but for all kinds of things out in the world. Wine was a way of exploring that.
Wine fraud happened before Rudy and has happened since. Why is Rudy's story so fascinating? You're right, wine fraud has happened since Roman times. I suppose what I liked about Rudy's story was that there was something a bit fairy story about it, like a fable. There are these people with extraordinary wealth who were dealing in wines that were $1,000 to $100,000 a bottle and he appears in this world as an outsider. No one knows where he comes from, he's quite mysterious and yet he has this incredible knowledge.
He worms his way into a world and accepted as an insider because of his ability to find this incredibly rare wine.
There's the kind of wine fraud that's on a mass scale. People just rebottling stuff and relabelling it by the crate load. I think there's something more skilled and artisanal about Rudy's fakes. The story also says something wider about wealth and value, and the things in which we place value.
What was it like sifting through the archive footage of Rudy? We were very lucky to get hold of this footage which was shot in 2002 by a producer in LA who was making a pilot for a wine show. He followed Rudy for a few days to dinners, an auction, and a couple of tastings. What was interesting about the material was that, in 2002 we know that Rudy was just beginning to fake wine. So you're seeing him right at the beginning in his counterfeiting career and he lets loose these crazy confessions.
He says things like, "Can I refill this and put the cork back in?" and at some point someone asks him if he's rich. He replies and says, "No, I scam people and take their wine." I found that psychologically interesting. That desire to confess and let others know what he's doing without telling them. Everyone around him takes it as a joke and he's deadly serious.
Were people willing to come forward and share their experiences of knowing Rudy? I guess there were two sides to it. In one sense, it's a detective story which involves multiple people who were suspicious of Rudy and started to look into him, from the FBI, to collectors, to wine experts, to Bill Koch, the American billionaire who was duped by Rudy, and Bill's investigator. Obviously, those people were really interested to share their experiences tracking Rudy down.
It was much harder to get people within the industry to talk. If you're a collector, you don't want to speak out that you've been fooled. You don't want people to know that you've got fake wine in your cellar that you haven't yet explored. If you're an auction house, you don't want any implication that you've been dealing in counterfeit wine. It's a story that's really difficult to get people to talk about. Somewhere in the film, Bill Koch talks about a code of silence around it and I think that's probably true. People don't want that association because it can be very damaging.
What was the filmmaking process like for you? I wanted open up that world for an audience to understand it. I wanted us to tell the story in a way which raised questions that weren't just about wine, but about faking and authenticity. And also how we feel about those things.
I also wanted to tell it as a good detective story. In some ways, it's like a crime thriller. For me, it was interesting as a filmmaking exercise because I haven't done anything that's detective in that way. There are all kinds of rules that you learn about how much or little information you need to give and how you keep an audience in doubt as long as possible.
What has the reaction been like from the wine industry and people who aren't involved in the wine world? It's had a really positive reaction which has been great. It's interesting sitting and watching a film with an audience because it plays very differently depending on the night. Sometimes people are cheering Rudy, sometimes people are shocked at the excess of it all, and sometimes people feel like a criminal has tainted this beautiful world. There are very diverse reactions to it. I think that's partly what makes it such a powerful story.
For me, Rudy isn't a Robin Hood figure. He wasn't stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. He was stealing from the rich and keeping it himself to make himself rich.
I think that you also have a certain amount of sympathy for the art of that world through Ponsot, the wine producer from Burgundy. You have a real sense that he's defending something important which is the authenticity of what he does and of the culture.
I think those who are in the film are interested in the story being told because there are a lot of lessons from it, for the industry and other collectors.
Thanks for talking to me, Jerry.
Sour Grapes is currently showing in UK cinemas.